Dilemmas on Right to Self-Determination – III

Self-determination for everyone

Luxemburg’s point was that the ‘nation’ has no unified ‘self’ or ‘will’, because it consists of diverse classes and groups that are often at loggerheads with one another. By pretending that the ‘nation’ has a unified ‘will’, proponents of the doctrine of the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ privilege the leaders of the most powerful group in the prospective nation, ignoring or disempowering others, and in some cases even encouraging the most powerful group to annihilate or evict the others, as happened in Sri Lanka. Nor is this an unmixed blessing for the group whom the leaders claim to represent, because the policies of the leadership may result in unnecessary suffering for them too, as in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Similarly in Kashmir, it is not only the Pandits who have suffered as a result of the Islamist vision of azadi. ‘Between 1989 and 1991 tens of thousands of Kashmiri youths crossed over the Line of Control and went to a land of their dreams – Pakistan, which many of them thought was a place where there was justice, peace and tranquillity’; but most were terribly disillusioned by the experience, and ended up feeling bitter at the deception that had trapped them ‘between a rock and a hard place’ (Choudhry 2010).

A solution that protects the democratic rights of all the diverse peoples of Jammu and Kashmir cannot be summed up in the slogan of ‘Azadi’ or formula of ‘the right of nations to self-determination’; it requires a process of discussion and negotiation between all the diverse peoples in the state. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that such a solution cannot be found while a military occupation by Indian forces continues torturing, raping and killing civilians with impunity. The most disturbing part of this horrifying account of a little Kashmiri boy beaten to death for venturing into the street to retrieve his ball (Javaid 2010) is that – as in the case of the Wikileaks revelations – it is the perpetrator with a conscience who has to undergo disciplinary action, while those who are gung-ho about their act of sadism go scot free. This suggests that such atrocities are the rule rather than the exception, and that they have sanction from above. And how could it be otherwise, when the chiefs of the armed forces are adamant that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which provides impunity for such crimes, must stay? All their arguments fall to the ground the moment they are scrutinised. They say that repealing the act will provide ‘carte blanche’ to insurgents, but do not explain how their ceasing to rape, torture and kill unarmed civilians will aid armed insurgents. On the contrary, reports of the recent outbreak of stone-pelting make it clear that the gratuitous violence of the security forces encouraged by impunity is actually the main cause of the problem, not any kind of solution to it (Parthasarathy 2010). The most bizarre argument is that punishing perpetrators of such crimes will ‘demoralise’ the armed forces. Surely security forces that beat little boys to death for sport have already lost much of their legitimacy? Wouldn’t punishing the psychopaths who engage in such activities help to rebuild their morale?

The decision as to whether AFSPA and other laws providing impunity for crimes committed by state security forces should be repealed or not is a political – not military – decision. Such laws violate the constitution in multiple ways. By dividing citizens into two sections, one of which (state security forces) can commit crimes with impunity while the other (civilian victims) cannot appeal to the law for protection, they violate the right to equality under the law and equal protection of the law, and also deprive civilians of other fundamental rights, including the right to life. As a public statement by concerned citizens puts it, ‘Draconian legislations like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the Jammu and & Kashmir Public Safety Act and the Disturbed Areas Act continue to facilitate human rights abuses in the valley.We therefore demand that the government take full cognizance of the continuing violation of human rights in the valley, make the security forces fully accountable so that the guilty can be prosecuted and punished’ (Public Statement 2010).

The marathon ten-year fast of Irom Sharmila, winner of the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize and many other awards, is in pursuance of the same demand. Her towering moral stature, as she continues to demonstrate her willingness to sacrifice her life in order to save innocents from suffering, injury and death, contrasts starkly with the immorality of security forces willing to inflict suffering, injury and death on innocents in order to avoid risking their own lives, and of political leaders who refuse to repeal AFSPA despite the fact that ‘The judicial inquiry commission headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy, instituted by the Central government to examine the advisability or otherwise of repealing the AFSPA, submitted a 147-page report on June 6, 2005, recommending repeal of the law’ (Iboyaima Laithangbam 2010).

‘Azadi’ may seem like a more revolutionary demand than the repeal of AFSPA, but it is not. As we saw, ‘azadi’ is compatible with authoritarianism, attacks on minorities, and the murder of political rivals: hardly a radical departure from the present. By contrast, the repeal of AFSPA and other laws providing impunity for human rights violations by the army and other security forces would help to provide an atmosphere in which the people of Kashmir and the North-East could work out solutions that guarantee democracy and self-determination for all, and not just for a privileged or dominant section. In India, a campaign for ‘Azadi’ may not get widespread support, partly because the meaning of the slogan is unclear and partly because the goal may be a situation no better than the present one, whereas a campaign against draconian legislation and human rights violations could appeal to a far wider constituency, on the grounds that failure to take up these issues undermines both India’s moral legitimacy and its claim to be a democracy.